On the third morning of my journey across Namibia, I leave behind the red sands of the Great Dune Field and head north along the edge of the Namib-Naukluft National Park. Craggy mountains still dominate the landscape, but at their base, what was barren desert when I entered the area two days ago is turning into something like a green five-o’clock shadow. I now understand the excitement of Jimmy, m amazing Wilderness Safaris guide, at the very prospect of rain.
Welcome to Solitaire
The wildlife is out in force at this promise of new grass. Small herds of springboks join the ubiquitous oryx. We also spot our first zebras and blue wildebeests. After a couple of hours of bouncing on a washboard dirt road leaving a massive trail of dust in our wake, we pull into Solitaire. The tiny desert outpost at the junction of the two gravel roads that are the main tourist routes in the area, is a de-rigueur stop for travelers. The place is right out of a 1950’s western movie set. It announces itself with deteriorating carcasses of vintage American cars scattered in the sand around the compound, and sign that goes straight to the point. “Welcome to Solitaire”.
Originally built in 1848 as a sheep farm by a Mr. van Collier, Solitaire was named by his wife, or so the story goes, both because there were diamonds in the area and the place fit the name (definitely the middle of nowhere!). Since then, it has developed into a gas station, the only place to get fuel on 340 kilometer (210 mile) trip the between Sossusvlei and Walvis Bay, a post office and general store, and a bakery.
The Moose McGregor Desert Bakery
The bakery is the main attraction these days, its apple pie famous beyond the borders of Namibia. It’s more like a crumble actually, but lets not quibble. It too comes with a story. Three decades or so ago, a Scottish adventurer, and a man bigger than life in every way, Percy Cross “Moose” McGregor came into town and never left. He was a wonderful baker who started to sell baked goods, including the aforementioned pie (from an old family recipe, of course), and the word spread around the world. Sadly, Moose passed away in 2014, but his legacy lives on. His meal-size squares of delicious Moose apple pie, served right out of the pan and still warm from the oven, are clearly the reason why a stop at Solitaire now figures on every tourist itinerary.
Tropic of Capricorn
Just 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Solitaire, we pass the Tropic of Capricorn. Then the road starts climbing in twist and turns, going around drop-offs sufficiently steep they warrant the first guardrails I have seen on this trip, to the top of the Gaub Pass. I take in the spectacular view of the stark schist rock face the Kuiseb Canyon below and black badlands undulating from its rim to the horizon as we snake down toward the river. The canyon was formed five million years ago, when a wetter climate prevailed in the interior and the river chiseled a narrow gorge through the Great Escarpment.
Today, the Kuiseb River is a sluggish ribbon of opaque brown water in no rush to vanish into the dunes some 80 kilometers (50 miles) downstream. Yet this is an exceptional sight, since for most of the year this ephemeral river is no more than a broad, dry sandy riverbed.
One more arduous climb on the other side of the canyon over the Kuiseb Pass, and the landscape goes through another metamorphosis as we head west toward Walvis Bay. We are back into the desert, flat, empty, endless; 140 kilometers (85 miles) of desolation framed by the distant outline of rocky outcrops worn smooth by an eternity of sand and wind.
Suddenly the gravel road turns to tarmac, and an immensity of colorless water rolls through the sea fog, with the eerie outline of an oil-drilling platform suspended above it. Walvis Bay, the only deepwater commercial seaport in Namibia, is also a servicing and parking destination for rigs and ships from the offshore drilling sites of Angola to the north.
The Swakopmund Time Warp
It’s another half-hour ride up the coast to Swakopmund, where we enter yet another time warp. Founded at the turn of the twentieth century, in the haydays of German South-West Africa, this resort town remains a living monument to its colonial past. It may be one hundred years since Germany relinquished the control of Namibia, but its cultural influence remains entrenched throughout the town. From the onion dome of the Deutsche Evengelisch-Lutherische Church to the neat, white-trimmed pastel buildings and the German street signage in angular Gothic script, all of it channels Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany. Even the ocean mist, which lifts only briefly today, conspires to give the town the feel of a small, off-season Baltic coast vacation town that time forgot.
The Hansa Hotel, where we spend the next two nights, is right in character. The oldest hotel in town (circa 1905), it is an integral part of the local architectural heritage. Although fully renovated in 2014, it retains its traditional old-world atmosphere, with welcome twenty-first century additions such as air-conditioning and reliable WiFi throughout. Its central location, a few minutes’ walk away from everywhere in the historic center and the waterfront, is ideal to explore the city at leisure.
Good to Know
- Where to Stay – The four-star Hansa Hotel, 3 Hendrik Witbool Street, Swakopmund, Namibia. Contact: e-mail reservations @ hansahotel.com.na . + 264 64 414 200.
- Wilderness Safaries is a major ecotourism tour operator with a significant presence throughout eastern and southern Africa, recognized for its responsible tourism practices over the past three decades. They offer private access to some 2.5 million hectares (six million acres) of Africa’s finest wildlife and wilderness areas. While they do not take direct bookings, they work with a global network of destination specialists, including Wild about Africa, who I selected to arrange this journey around Namibia.
- Wild about Africa is an established destination specialist focusing on moderately-priced, solo traveler-friendly small group safaris (maximum 7 participants) in Bostwana, Namibia and Zambia. Wild about Africa, 10 & 11 Upper Square, Old Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 7BJ, U.K. Contact: e-mail enquiries @ wildaboutafrica.com, +1-800-242-2434 (U.S.), +44 (0) 20 8758 4717 (U.K.).